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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Got Game: How to Keep Girls Interested in Computer Science

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

When the regular school day ends at Maryland's Springbrook High School, the fun begins in earnest for girls who are part of an after-school club that focuses on game programming. They not only excel at technology challenges, says their teacher, Pat Yongpradit, but they are breaking a longstanding -- and worrisome -- trend in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Instead of avoiding higher-level classes in computer science, these girls are signing up in droves.

How to get more girls interested in STEM is a question that has perplexed everyone from social scientists to corporate leaders worried about a workforce shortage of engineers and scientists. "Why So Few?" Is a report released earlier this year by the American Association of University Women that paints a confusing picture. Girls are rapidly closing the achievement gap in math during high school yet veer away from STEM majors in college. The numbers get worse in graduate school.

Other researchers have noted a paradox between "performance and persistence" among women in technology courses. Why do female students who do well academically exit the STEM pipeline?

An Entertaining Solution

Yongpradit came up with his novel approach three years ago. He started with a simple observation. "In my entry-level computer science classes, I had about 30 percent girls. In my upper-level classes," says the 10-year teaching veteran, "the numbers dropped off, even though girls were good at programming. I wondered why."

So he asked them. Girls told him that they didn't like the environment of the upper-level classes, which they saw as dominated by "geeky boys." Based on his own experience, Yongpradit says, "I know that technology can be a cool, social, hip thing. It doesn't have to be only for boys who are interested in games about shooting. It can be so much more than that -- and in the real world, it is."

The after-school club offers girls a distinctly different environment. "They form a bond," their teacher says, while working in an informal learning setting. They cheer each other on as they tackle difficult programming challenges. "We touch on programming for games in class, but this is more advanced," he adds. Specifically, they develop games for the Zune media player, a device most are already familiar with. Their focus may be entertainment technology, "but this involves rigorous, academic content," adds Yongpradit. Girls also gain real-world experience working as a team, with some specializing in art creation and others focused on coding.

Global Recognition

In recognition of his creative teaching approach, Yongpradit received a top honor at the Microsoft Innovative Education Forum held recently in South Africa. Winner of first prize for his project, "Game Programming with the Zune to Promote High School Women in Technology," he was the only U.S. educator among the dozen finalists selected from an international pool of 200,000 competitors.

Meeting educators from around the world at the forum gave Yongpradit more ideas to bring back to Springbrook High, which enrolls about 1,800 students in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He anticipates getting his students involved in global collaborations, thanks to contacts he made in South Africa. He is also moving ahead with new ideas to "teach computer science in a social context." For example, he says, students can learn about object-oriented programming by developing a serious game about the challenges faced by street children in South Africa. "You can use code to represent their situation and explore deeply what they go through." He suspects that such challenges are likely to appeal to female students. "Girls want meaning," he says, "especially social meaning."

Yongpradit's quest to make computer science more inviting is paying off. His school recently added a second computer science teacher to accommodate the increased enrollment in introductory classes, "and we're retaining more girls for the higher-level classes," he adds. "Computer science is for all kinds of people. You don't have to fit any stereotypes. You can be female or someone who's into sports. More diversity is good for the whole field."

What are you doing to help raise awareness of computer science as a field open to everyone? Computer Science Education Week takes place Dec. 5-11. Make a pledge to participate, and please tell us about your efforts.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

carl's picture

This is a pretty sexist article. Targeting a group of people based solely on their sex is wrong.

Pat's picture
Pat
Former computer science teacher

Congratulation, Pat Youngpradit! A wonderful way to engage the talent of your students.
The purpose of education is to individuals to reach their full potential. If any segment of the population is falsely lead to believe that they "do not belong" ...be it through social norms or peer pressure, action to correct those misperceptions is more than appropriate.
The future of our country will require that every citizen be accomplished in technology. We cannot afford to have half of our collective talent and brainpower (females) left out of the creation of the future.

Ken's picture

[quote]This is a pretty sexist article. Targeting a group of people based solely on their sex is wrong.[/quote]

Why is this wrong?

Should Tampon manufactures create ads for men?

From the article it sounds like girls could excel in this, but they don't. So finding out why is sexist?

As someone who is a "geeky boy" and work in the industry I love the idea. Women think differently then men. A different perspective is a good thing. I welcome the idea and have been helping my 12 year old daughter to learn programming.

Wanting to keep tech mostly men is sexist. Not wanting girls to succeed in something they could be great in is sexist. Trying to figure out why they drop out isn't.

tmackey's picture

[quote]This is a pretty sexist article. Targeting a group of people based solely on their sex is wrong.[/quote]
I too do not understand why this is wrong. Is this any different than something like the girl scouts?

The teacher identified an area that these girls excel at and one reason they were not continuing the education in that field. A way around it was to create an environment that removed what teenage girls see as a road block. Once these girls gained some confidence, they were more likely to stick with it.

As a girl that made it through college with an Electrical Engineering degree, I know I would not had survived if I had to study and perform labs with the men. In labs the women were relied on to be the record keepers/note takers. In my case there were 3 girls in a class of about 75. We scheduled our classes and labs together to avoid these situations. Had I had a program like this in high school, I might have had the confidence to go it alone.

Maryann Grund's picture
Maryann Grund
High School teacher in all girls school in Chicago, IL

What beginning classes do you teach? We have tried for several years to incorporate a computer science program, but with no interest. We are looking for a new approach to get our students (all girls) interested in this area of technology. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Meghan Harvey's picture

The work at do at SheHeroes involves a lot of asking that same question of "Why So Few?" I think programs like the one at Springbrook High could go a long way in helping. But as we focus on at SheHeroes, it's also about exposing girls (and boys for that matter) to the women who ARE in these fields and are succeeding. We've been encouraging educators, homeschoolers and parents to look at some of our interviews (done by teen girls and created for teens) of women who have followed careers in areas of STEM and hopefully can inspire other girls to do the same.

Marika Gewalli's picture

Even though I think it is a good idea to get girls interested in programming, I do not think making special classes just for girls is the way to go. Changing the overall feeling in the classroom is better, the best way to learn is to let boys and girls learn together, and from each other. As Ken wrote in an earlier comment, boys and girls think diffrently and learning together helps both boys and girls to learn how to think in diffrent paths and get more out of their education.

Elspeth Inglis's picture
Elspeth Inglis
Assistant Director for programs at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

[quote]Even though I think it is a good idea to get girls interested in programming, I do not think making special classes just for girls is the way to go. Changing the overall feeling in the classroom is better, the best way to learn is to let boys and girls learn together, and from each other. As Ken wrote in an earlier comment, boys and girls think diffrently and learning together helps both boys and girls to learn how to think in diffrent paths and get more out of their education.[/quote]

I agree that a co-ed environment is important for both genders. Girls, of course, need to learn to work in an environment that is dominated by men,if they are interested in science/technology fields. However, some leveling of the playing field is still necessary, and doing that fairly early in girls' education may very well give many girls the confidence they need to compete in a traditionally male-oriented environment.

Lloyd's picture
Lloyd
Edutainment Software Engineer

The education field has only recently begun asking the same questions that game developers asked years ago...how to design games for girls and women. The success rate is still low, though increasing annually. I suggest people visit game dev sites such as IGDA and learn from others' successes.

It should also be noted that the teacher, Yongpradit, hasn't created a course for girls; he's focused the content that INCLUDES girls. He's teaching game development, and there's nothing girl-only about that. :)

Also note that most teachers of computer science classes, both in high schools and universities, are still stuck in the 1960's, teaching languages such as LISP and Prolog, while the real world shuns them. If you want to see more kids getting into computer science, do like what Yongpradit is doing and teach something that actually applies to the real world.

FWIW: I've been coding for over 30 years and withstood 3 different university computer science programs. Over 90% of my real world education has come from self teaching as only core coding priciples have been found to apply in the real world.

Beth Moss's picture
Beth Moss
charter school founding member, former school teacher, parent

You write," What are you doing to help raise awareness of computer science as a field open to everyone?" .... Well for the past three years my husband has been working diligently to open Utah's first computer science high school. Wasatch Institute of Technology is a free public charter high with an emphasis on software engineering and network systems. The State Board of Education called it the"most innovative" charter they had ever seen. Now our challenge is to find students interested in technology. Open enrollment is going on now. We have attended some girl's STEM conferences trying to locate female students, but have had very limited success with girls. However, we keep trying because we recognize they will provide much needed balance for the school. www.wasatachinstitute.net. Also on facebook - http://www.facebook.com/WITInfo?ref=ts&fref=ts.

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